Narendra Modi is widely accepted as a great communicator. In the first week of the national lockdown to contain a Covid-19 outbreak, he has communicated a great deal. He told us that he had a meeting with radio jockeys to talk about his Covid-19 communications strategy. He told us what he does to stay fit during the lockdown and shared his yoga video as proof. He did a whole radio show to talk about the Covid-19 virus, the importance of the lockdown and gave us tips on how to protect ourselves from the virus through social distancing.

In a seemingly different universe, men, women and children, were leaving towns and cities in their thousands, on foot, to make their way to their villages hundreds of kilometres away in the poorer northern states of India. Newspapers, Modi’s favourite medium – social media – and even television were full of reports of people with no money who have not eaten for days. Women with small children walking through the night. A mass of humans jammed up against each other, waiting for buses or food at night shelters. And police beating up and brutalising them, because by walking they were violating the lockdown.

Modi told us that he had set up a public charitable trust called “PM-Cares” to fund raise “keeping in mind the objective of dealing with any kind of emergency or distress situation, like the Covid-19 pandemic, and to provide relief to the affected…”. As the thousands walked on, because they had lost jobs, had not been paid or knew that if they did not get home there would be no one to harvest the crop on the family plot, Modi was focussed on his fund raiser, thanking individual donors – MPs, actors, sports stars, corporate houses – for their contributions, easily made from the comfort if their homes, without violating the lockdown. The Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, which has been in existence since 1948, has an unspent balance of Rs 3,800 crores.

Boosting morale

Newspapers, social media and television have also been full of reports about shortages in hospitals, emanating from hospitals and medical professionals. Three weeks ago, the head of India’s foremost public hospital said that the health system was already at saturation point. Ventilated ICU beds were full, as were regular wards. Hospital staff were working without basic protective gear like masks, gloves and shoe covers. There were many reports of hospital staff who had not been paid for months. There were reports of landlords and apartment complexes evicting doctors, because the governments only message was to protect yourself, and not to protect your neighbour.

Modi told us that during the lockdown he was making over a hundred phone calls a day. Every day he calls a different medical professional somewhere in the country to “boost their morale”. He asks them how they were doing and how their families were coping. This is how a call goes:

PM: “Tell me, how are you handling your family? They must be worried about you.”

Nurse: “I know sir, but we have to do our work. We manage somehow.”

PM: “People must be scared,.. don’t be afraid; that is our message.”

What thinking people are scared of is a government that does not have a plan for how to deal with what is likely a public health catastrophe in the making. What Modi’s life in the first week of the lockdown suggests is that he has a very good communications plan, he aims to address a self-selecting world-wide audience of die-hard supporters. The people who agree with him that if anything goes wrong in India it is always someone else’s fault.

Narendra Modi attends a videoconference with G20 leaders to discuss the coronavirus pandemic in New Delhi on March 26. Credit: PIB

Modi has continued to communicate to his chosen audience. He has told them that he has had a video conference with Indian ambassadors to learn from them how the countries they serve handling the Covid-19 crisis. That he has video conference with unnamed “leading social organisations”, and with auyrvedic doctors to discuss possible treatments for the virus, and so on.

Through this interregnum and in the face of undeniable evidence to the contrary, Modi’s government has asserted that India has a sufficient numbers of Covid-19 test kits, life-saving equipment and protective hospital gear. Under cover of this patently untruthful message, the government has shown a terrifying business-as-usual mentality, setting a plodding pace for testing for the virus. It has shown no urgency at all in trying to import or to approve Indian made Covid-19 test kits, nor made public the names of the 18 companies on its list. It has been tardy with procurement of necessary hospital equipment, while at the same time, Modi has cheered on Indian industrialists making outlandish claims about their ability to manufacture cheaply and quickly equipment in very short supply, like ventilators, which they have never manufactured before.

This combination of business as usual and delusion seems to inform every part of the Modi government’s policy making for dealing with the fall-out of Covid-19. The purported plan to contain the spread of the virus, which included quarantining international travellers, most of whom were not, came too late, was poorly thought out and clearly made on the hop. Its entire focus was on foreign travellers. But as late as March 22, it directed domestic airlines to carry transit passengers who had been recommended “home quarantine”, as if their likelihood of infecting people was miraculously suspended until they entered their homes.

Supreme Court submissions

Its plan to deal with the massive economic fallout of the virus outbreak, which has led to almost all economic activity being halted, has been entirely unserious. Nothing drives this home as clearly as the government’s submissions in the Supreme Court on the matter hundreds of thousands migrant workers on the long trek back to their villages since the lockdown was announced. The government told the court that “there was no necessity for migrants to rush to their villages… their daily needs were being taken care of wherever they were working” and that the government’s “financial package”, announced by Nirmala Sitharaman on March 2, “takes care of the daily needs of every poor person, which includes migrant workers as well as their respective families in their original villages.”

Both these claims – that people’s daily needs were being taken care of where they were and that the financial package takes care of every poor person – are a lie. Very many people did not have work or were not paid wages. They had little or no money to buy food or pay rent. The sudden announcement of the lockdown made the fear of being trapped real. As for the government’s financial package, grandiosely named the PM’s Garib Kalyan Yojana, it is the most egregious form of financial and fiscal jugglery. The Rs 20 increase in wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act were just the planned annual increase, the perfunctory wage support for private sector employees was a way to make them withdraw their own savings, and the payments to farmers was merely advancing payments due a few months from now.

The Modi government’s only urgent and urgently implemented decision (apart from the PM-Cares fund) has been to broadcast re-runs of the 1980s state television commissioned serialisation of the epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The three-times a day broadcasts commenced the day after the government made the announcement, as an incentive to keep TV audiences with a passion for religious dramas occupied during the lockdown. The Union information minister, using the same communication strategy as the prime minister, tweeted tone-deaf pictures of himself sitting alone in his large living room watching the Ramayana on a large TV screen, while families with small hungry children trudged along national highways.

Narendra Modi chairs a cabinet meeting as ministers maintain social distancing. Credit: PTI

Any sense that government has a handle on the unfolding crisis has comes from the states. State governments, with the southern states in the lead, but also states like Odisha and Rajasthan, have constantly evolving policies on trying to manage the health care aspects of the Covid-19 outbreak. But there are as yet no nationally defined hospital treatment protocols, and the government agency tasked with this seems more concerned with deflecting scrutiny of infection numbers. The state governments have been upfront about the levels of testing, the rates of infection and deaths. The Union government, on the other hand, seems reluctant to share basic information on testing. Kerala, a step ahead of everyone else, has already changed its testing protocol to increase the rate of testing.

Many states were also quick to put in place subsistence measures to mitigate the immediate humanitarian crisis caused by the economic shut down and the sudden lockdown. They have housed migrant workers who were trying to make their way home, and made available a combination of dry rations, cash allowances, and cooked meals to both migrant workers and the self-employed like stall holders and vendors and registered workers.

States are also having to work at maintaining or restoring their supply chains. The unplanned announcement of the nation-wide lockdown, froze all movement and the directive to only allow an ill-specified number of “essential” goods left a great deal to the discretion to the professionally rent-seeking police. State governments also had to find ways to keep at least some agricultural activity going in what is in different parts of the country harvest or sowing season. With the lockdown notified under the Disaster Management Act, it is the Centre that makes the decisions on who and what can move, and until a few days ago it has not notified agricultural activities as essential services.

Sealing borders

At the time of writing this article, Modi was still closely following the fundraising for PM-Cares his newly created public charitable trust. His government’s response to the humanitarian crisis, generated by his abrupt announcement of the nation-wide lockdown and no clear administrative plan, was to direct state governments seal their borders and stop all movement.

His government also attempted to have the Supreme Court restrict reporting on Covid-19 only to the government version. However, the Supreme Court in wisdom has said it will not interfere with the “free discussion of the pandemic” but directed the media to “refer to and publish the government version of the developments”. Having failed with the Supreme Court, the government is now holding a pro forma daily press conference on Covid-19.

Before lockdown Modi, had a video conference with media editors. His message to them was: “it is important to tackle the spread of pessimism, negativity and rumour. Citizens need to be assured the government is committed to countering the impact of Covid-19.”

A government has to show its commitment by its actions. And the Modi government’s actions inspire no confidence. Pessimism and negativity can be dispelled through an open national conversation about the pandemic and how a poor country like India will have to deal with it. Among other things, it must acknowledge the nation as a whole and the important role of state governments. But, a national conversation needs sharp minds and intellectual honesty, both in short supply at the top. As for rumour, when it has already been weaponised for political gain, it is those who have gained the most from it who have to shut down the rumour mill.

What we will have to look out for as this crisis unfolds is the Modi-BJP’s attempts to down the shutters on information and on those who dare to ask questions. We can only hope that state governments, which have led the way thus far, will remain unaffected by the Centre’s attempts at censorship, to keep the nation informed, in order to help it deal with the pandemic.